Magical Power Mako was a dude named Makoto Kurito who started recording and releasing some really cool, weird Japanese psychedelic rock in the early 70s. I stumbled onto his best known work today, the 1975 album Super Record, and was totally enthralled. While there’s a lot of cool Japanese psych stuff from the 60s and 70s onward, what set Mako’s stuff on Super Record apart for me was that, like his early 70s home recordings that were later released as the HAPMONIYM box set in 2002, Super Record feels like a cool collage of weird, stylistically all-over-the-place music. It doesn’t feel like an album that was made to sell or impress anyone – it feels homey, intimate and diy. It’s also fairly mystical outsider music, and reminds me in that sense of Joachim Skogsberg‘s Jola Rota, which has a similar sensibility.
Since I just found Mako today, I haven’t had the chance to check out his other albums – which appear to be a bit less streaming-friendly – but hopefully I’ll get to them soon.
Admittedly, this blog is quickly becoming exclusively about curious stuff I see at Academy Records in Greenpoint. Trad, Gras & Stenar (Trees, Grass & Stone) is no exception. I saw the anthology for their 70s live albums Djungelns Lag and Mors Mors on the shelf and thought “that looks interesting…” And here we are.
Trad, Gras & Stenar are a Swedish progg rock band from the late 60s/early 70s. They were known for their live show, which had a lot of interesting audience participation stuff. That’s pretty irrelevant for us now listening to their recordings, but luckily they were also known for solid jams, and those you can hear on the recordings (which are also on Spotify). If you’ve ever listened to Dungen (or more likely their semi-copycats Tame Impala), this is one of the bands those guys are imitating. It’s earthy, mysterious, a bit mystical – real old school psychedelia.
The musicians in TGS were ‘men about town’ and played in a bunch of other respected Swedish bands from the period, including Parson Sound and (International) Harvester. As I’m quickly learning, the Swedish underground prog and psych scenes from the period were really something special, so those are all names worth checking out. And if you’ve got any recommendations of underground Swedish psychedelic bands from the 60s/70s that I should look into, let me know in the comments.
I used to think that Phil Elvrum had some ‘meh’ albums. Actually, almost all his albums are incredible, mystical and entrancing. Sauna is as well.
Pitchfork noted that Sauna feels like it completes a trilogy with Clear Moon and Ocean Roar. But I’d say that if anything, those albums were two sides of one coin. Sauna is an entirely new coin, made in the same line. It feels more encapsulated, whole, than the aforementioned albums. Elvrum’s trademark innovatively homespun production is, as always, magnificent in its earthiness.
4. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Fading Frontier would be Deerhunter‘s sellout album except that it is not in any way. The band’s writing is perhaps stronger than ever, and though the songs are a bit cleaner, less punk and/or shoegaze than on previous albums, that actually ends up making them sound more classically Deerhunter than anything else. Six (or seven, if you count Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. as two) great albums in and Deerhunter sound like they’re just hitting their stride.
3. Fred Thomas – All Are Saved
All Are Saved is a minor masterpiece. It’s not minor because it’s not good enough to be a full-on masterpiece, but minor because its a small, intimate album. Its a report from the frontline of indie rock. A ‘caution’ label for those ready to sign their souls away for a maybe-maybe-not satisfying career as a somewhat appreciated indie rocker, forever destined to remain the critics darling and the rest of the world’s “who?”
The fact that nobody really cared about any of the other (seven) albums Thomas put out before this one only makes All Are Saved that much more special. Like he was the dude sitting on the couch playing guitar at a party while nobody listened or paid attention. Knowing all the while that he was onto something good, and eventually, even if it took years and years, some peeps would figure it out. All Are Saved is the album where some of us figured it out.
2. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
2015 was a rough year for anyone on the wrong side of political correctness. If you’ve been living in a cave since December 2014, just watch the last season of South Park and you’ll get a bit of the idea. But what if you just wanted an edgy band name to match the sound of your edgy music?
I’ll admit the name was insensitive – I don’t agree that it’s racist. But it would be a lot easier for me to get on the castigation bandwagon if the band did not make such a phenomenal album that, by a band with any other name, would sound just as astounding. It’s even better on vinyl, where you can pick apart the layers of noise creating a sediment-like soundscape through which spacey synths and harmonic guitars shine like flashlights in a dark cavern.
And really, the album itself has its priorities in order. It stares (without blinking) at how chaotic our ‘organized’ societies are when one dares lift the seal. I also liked hearing a couple guys from Calgary sing the line “fingertips in the fountain fondle liquid gold”.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell, as an album, was such a revelation that it made everyone like Age of Adz and Illinois - perhaps two of the greatest albums of the last ten years – a little bit less. At the time of their release, the aforementioned albums’ elaborate arrangements and compositional backflips made “Sufjan is a genius!” more or less a statement of fact rather than exultation. But by comparison with Carrie & Lowell, both seem overproduced and disingenuous. Carrie & Lowell feels so effortlessly beautiful. So honest in its minimalism. Why would anyone want to hear Sufjan play anything other than an acoustic guitar and quiet synth in his DUMBO apartment?
I’m not sure how Sufjan can top this one. But people probably said the same thing about Illinois.
2015. It was ok year. Not the greatest, not the worst. I’d say that applies both to my life personally, and the albums that came out. Here were some I liked in order.
10. Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire
If I had to say why I liked this album in comparison with other Lightning Bolt albums, I would have to take some more time to diferentiate them. As it stands, this was definitely an album I listened to and liked a lot this year, my first as a resident of Brooklyn. Lightning Bolt, even though they’ve moved back to Rhode Island, are so emblematic of Brooklyn. Like, the good Brooklyn, the cool Brooklyn – basically Bushwick, or Williamsburg ten years ago. It’s scrappy, minimal, badass, tattooed, noisy, young, experimental, ferocious. Don’t ever change, LB. At least not too much.
9. Bjork – Vulnicura
Vulnicura is relatively low on my list because I always kind of lost interest as the album went along. But even so, I can’t deny that this contains a wealth of gorgeous and astoundingly honest music. Definitely one of my favourite Bjork albums. The orchestration is incredible, and Bjork‘s vocal performances throughout thoroughly moving.
8. Frog Eyes – Pickpocket’s Locket
Sometimes a great band is rewarded by a lack of success. Whereas mediocre bands may blow up briefly, then spend the rest of their careers trying to live up to the moment in time they’re forever associated with, a great band that exists in relative obscurity, but with a dedicated fanbase, can keep pushing itself and developing over time, untethered to a particular time or sound.
I saw Frog Eyes at the too-cool-for-school venue Babys All Right in Brooklyn a couple weeks ago. It was amazing how honest and real Frog Eyes seemed compared to so many of the other shit hot hipster bands I’ve seen play the same stage in the last year or so that I’ve been living in NYC. I think maybe it had to do with the fact that Frog Eyes was older than most bands that play there. They’re at the age when people have a family and a mortgage and stop caring about looking cool. It was just refreshing.
I always felt like Frog Eyes could (in some alternate universe with more critical discernment) have blown up a couple years ago, but didn’t and have been kind of persisting in that void of disappointment ever since. Listen to how much slower, and less energetic their albums have become – though ultimately I believe that’s been for the better. They’ve made the best albums of their career in that void, including Paul’s Tomb, Carey’s Cold Spring, and this year’s Pickpocket’s Locket. Putting dollars and cents aside, maybe the lack of great, big success for this great, little band has been better for everyone in the long run.
7. Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
Another wonderful Julia Holter album of striking composition and impeccable arrangements.
6. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Year With 13 Moons
An album that caught me with its cool title and kept with me its deep swirls of beautiful sound. I spent a lot of hours listening to it while studying.
I’ve written plenty about my favourite record store in the world, Academy Records in Brooklyn. Going there for me is just a given drain on my wallet, because I will undoubtedly see some rare foreign album reissue with a note from the staff on it reading something like “awesome midwestern folk obscurity” or “incredible japanese psych underground classic!” Before I know it I’m out $35.
The other day I was in the neighbourhood and walked in just intending to browse casually, determined not to buy anything. I ended up looking through the Swedish section and saw this weird album cover. As I do whenever I find something that looks curious, I took a picture so I could look it up online at home.
As I soon learned, the album is a vinyl reissue of Joakim Skogsberg‘s rare, mysterious 1971 album Jola Rota. Skogsberg was part of the hippie scene in Stockholm back in the 60s, but as time went on he became increasingly interested in nature and escaping the city. Apparently, Skogsberg would go into the forest and hum into a tape recorder strange melodies inspired by a folkways recording of Japanese shamanist chanting. He later overdubbed cool droning and percussion sounds, building full songs around the forest humming tapes at recording spaces back in the city. The resulting album received a limited 1000 copy print with around 400 selling – the rest were melted down and used to make other records. Shortly after the release, Skogsberg left Stockholm to live in a small, rustic town filled mostly with elderly citizens, the youth having all moved to the cities. It would be something like 20 years before he recorded another album.
This kind of backstory alone was enough to convince me I had to own Jola Rota. It’s the kind of strange and magnificent that record geeks live and die for. Like Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence‘s OAR, it’s got a mystical, ‘heart of darkness’ honesty that’s impossible to fake. Two days later I went back to Academy and shelled out the cash…they got me again…